The Reason for the Season

Preface: Despite what the reader may think, this is not a lament on the state of the celebration of Christmas. That topic is in the queue for future treatment. A reflection on college football follows.

Having grown up in Texas, I was infused with enthusiasm for football; as inescapable a part of the culture as The Alamo, country music, and of course, revival preachers and the Southern Baptist Church.

My hometown team (and later alma mater) is the Baylor Bears, who had about five winning seasons in the last half of the twentieth century.  Recently Baylor’s teams have had more success than I could have ever imagined as a child: a Heisman Trophy winner, and now, back-to-back conference championships. So, at last, with a quarter-billion-dollar stadium to call home, and a season in which they were serious contenders for a shot at the national championship, the Mighty Bears seem mighty indeed. No more “wait until next year.” Baylor University has finally arrived in the promised land of big time football.

But, as with all promised lands, there are new challenges and new grief to bear. The 2014 Fiesta Bowl gave me the greatest disappointment of my 57-year fandom: a one-sided loss to a relatively unknown upstart University of Central Florida. I later learned that rather than bringing a windfall of profit, the University barely broke even on their appearance. The expenses of travel for the team, band, and official entourage plus the cost of 8,000 unsold seats of their ticket allotment resulted in a financial disappointment as great as the on-field performance. As an ever-hopeful Alumnus I can only hope that this season’s Cotton Bowl appearance, sited in the heart of “Bear Country”, will be both an on-field and back-office success as great as last season’s disappointment.

Speaking of disappointment, who is more disappointed than the TCU Horned Frogs? Not only were they Big Twelve Conference Co-Champions (sharing the title with the Mighty Bears, from whom they received their only loss); they were also ranked #3 until the selection committee met and selected the Ohio State Buckeyes to take their place in the inaugural national championship playoff.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Urban Meyer and his coaching staff put on a National Championship quality season winning their Big 10 division title under the leadership of their second-string quarterback, and the Big 10 championship game, decisively, with their third-string quarterback at the helm. Clearly a demonstration of great talent, great play, and great coaching that rivals anything Alabama, Oregon, or Florida State bring to the show.

The new grief that TCU has the misfortune of experiencing first-hand is the new reality of life in the promised land of big-time college football. Whereas collegiate athletics in general and football in particular were once undertaken for the sake of the university; now they serve a new master. At one time, the Saturday afternoon game gave students, faculty, alumni, and friends an occasion to come together for a few hours, loosen their neckties and clerical collars, yell and cheer, and loose themselves in a collective experience of support for their team and their colors. Attending the game, whether win or lose, strengthened the bonds of friendship among the fans, the affiliation of the fans for the school, and the support of the alumni for their alma mater.

Now, the teams have become the minor leagues for the National Football League. The colleges have undertaken the expense of and liability for maturing each year’s crop of aspiring athletes without compensation or support of the NFL.

The promise of great riches from big time football is as elusive as the Rainbow’s End. Baylor’s $250,000,000.00 new stadium lies less than 100 miles from Texas A&M’s $400,000,000.00 renovation of Kyle Field. Salaries for the coaching staff run into the millions, as does the cost of equipment and practice facilities. I suspect that if the fully-loaded cost of the football programs at the top-tier schools were revealed, few if any would show great riches. Great revenue, great expenses, but hardly great profits.

The selection of The Ohio State University over Texas Christian University for the national playoff is explained by the spectacular conclusion of OSU’s season and the triumph over adversity it represents. The cynic in me suspects that the driving reason is the selection committee’s conclusion that a match-up that included The Ohio State University would draw a bigger television audience than a contest with Texas Christian University no matter how spectacular TCU’s performance might be. Name recognition, the number of alumni spread around the world, and a long history of success carried the day in favor of The OSU.

The bottom line for big-time college football is the bottom line of the accounting ledger; not the college’s accounting ledger, but the accounting ledger of the broadcaster of the game. Big time college football has ceased to serve the interest of the college, its faculty, students, and supporters. Big time college football has become a content provider for the entertainment industry. As a result it is more important that a star quarterback be kept eligible to play in the championship game than that he be held to account for his behavior off the field be it merely boorish or clearly criminal.

The show must go on.

The risk of life altering brain injuries is a small price (read no price to the broadcaster) to pay for the audience-pleasing play of a talented young quarterback.

The show must go on.

The criminal misbehavior of a Jerry Sandusky was kept secret for decades to preserve the reputation of an iconic coach.

The show must go on.

As the evidence mounts, the conclusion is inescapable: college football has sold its soul to the highest bidder.

College football has had its critics for a long time. In 1897 the Religious Herald of Richmond Virginia reported that its editor “agreed with another editor in failing to see what pleasure cultured ladies and gentlemen and university professors could derive from ‘that dirtily clad, bare and frowsy headed, rough-and-tumble, shoving, pushing, crushing, pounding, kicking, ground-wallowing, mixed-up mass of players, of whom any might come out with broken limbs, or be left on the ground writhing with ruptured vitals’”.

In that day, the focus of concern was on the physical and moral well being of the participants of the game. Today, it is time to reflect on the moral well being of the institutions that are “left on the ground writhing with ruptured vitals” and on an entertainment industry that demands their complicity.

The Poor are not a Problem to be Solved

Recently, I posted two somewhat provocative statements on my Facebook wall. I was a bit disappointed by the relatively few comments generated by the following:

The poor are not a problem to be solved.

The opposite of poverty is not wealth,
The opposite of poverty is justice.

The first statement was conveyed to me in a conversation with my Spiritual Director several years ago. Regrettably, I did not note the source of the second (Probably a Facebook post).

It is not a topic we like to discuss. Haven’t we all been annoyed by panhandlers asking for money as we enter the grocery store? Pastors and parishioners alike are vexed by how to handle the person stopping by on Sunday morning asking for gas money so he can make it home to his family, buy medication for his children, or complete an emergency car repair. After hearing enough of these requests, it is easy to slip into cynicism and conclude that it is all one big con game.

Advice to the troubled parishioner or the harassed shopper sometimes alludes to Jesus telling his disciples “for the poor you have with you always” in an attempt to mollify their discomfort with ignoring these requests. Politicians often cite this passage to give their plans to cut welfare programs an air of respectability. I also hear it used in fatalistic resignation to the enormity of the task of assisting the poor.

The statement, in fact, comes from the narrative of the anointing in Bethany found in the Gospel of John, chapter 12. Judas asks, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”… But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial.  For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.”(John 12:5,7-8, NRSV)

Far from dismissing the plight of the poor, Jesus is saying that concern for the poor is not the only agenda for his followers. This passage foreshadows his death and burial and affirms that the disciples have responsibility for both the immediate concerns of Jesus and his followers, as well as an on-going ministry that clearly includes concern for the welfare of the poor.

Looking at the ethics and teaching of all three Abrahamic Traditions, we find that hospitality to the stranger; protection of the sojourner; and care for the widow and the orphan are foundational ethical teachings of the prophets of each tradition.

So, in response to statements such as “the poor are not a problem to be solved” and “the opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice,” I would say that we dare not appeal to Jesus (“for the poor you always have with you”) and say that the plight of the poor is a constant in society, regardless of the political and economic system of the day.

On the contrary, I challenge people of faith to be critics of the status quo. Follow the lead of the prophets and bring the highest principles of your tradition, not the values and structures of the status quo, to the debate. Rather than try to “solve the problem of poverty” acknowledge that whatever political/economic system is in place, some will be poor, some will be prosperous, and some will rise to the top and enjoy wealth.

The challenge of the faithful is to continue to examine the structures and dynamics of the status quo for the ways, intended and unintended, that confer advantages on some and disadvantages on others. See if the economic system of the day is designed to form and perpetuate a permanent underclass whose labor is available for exploitation by the wealthy and powerful. And finally, ensure that the political process gives equal access and equal voice to the concerns and needs of poor, the prosperous, and the wealthy.

A postscript for the church: For those of us called to ministry, it can be a subtle, but real temptation to be caught in the trap of trying to solve the problems of the poor. See Henri Nouwen’s treatment of the Temptations of Jesus (Downward Mobility, The Selfless Way of Christ, Sojourners Magazine). He finds in Jesus’ response to the temptations to do something relevant, something spectacular, and something powerful and influential, the true calling of Christians: to be faithful to the highest calling of our tradition.

As we try to find ways to respond to the panhandler at our door, I think much wisdom can be found in the narrative of Acts 3 in which a beggar confronts Saint Peter at the temple asking for alms. Peter says “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee.” (Acts 3:6, KJV)   It may be tempting to think that preaching the Gospel and maintaining a prophetic critique of the status quo isn’t “doing” anything about the plight of the poor. On the contrary, keeping the ethics of our tradition in the forefront of the minds of the people and constantly looking for ways to make a more just society is “silver and gold” enough. It is “doing” what we are called and uniquely qualified to do.

A New Vision

2014

In my reflections since I posted my thoughts on gun violence last year, I have reached the perspective that addressing gun violence by enacting new and more restrictive gun laws is rather like addressing climate change by issuing snow shovels and air conditioners to every household in the country.

More effective ways of addressing climate change include accepting the scientific method for analyzing the problem, gathering data relevant to the problem, and collectively agreeing on reasonable and effective changes to our ways of living and doing business that will not further aggravate the problem. (This, of course, assumes we can agree that there is a problem in the first place).

With over 100 million gun owners owning over 300 million guns, (not to mention the tens of thousands of individuals who earn their living in the arms industry) any action to address the issue of gun violence that alienates and demonizes these individuals is doomed not only to failure, but to create a backlash that will only make matters worse.

I think a recent Gallup Poll (October 28, 2013) points the way to a more productive direction to focus our concerns.  When gun owners were asked why they purchase guns, the number one reason (60% of respondents) answered, “fear”.  This immediately raises the obvious question:  Why are so many people so fearful?

Some of us are fearful of a changing world; others of new ideas and new ways of being in the world.  Yet others fear unfamiliar cultures and religions.

In any case, many of us have no place to turn with our fears, except to turn inward and reject new technologies and new ideas; to reach for our chosen symbols of power and autonomy such as our firearms; or retreat to the certainty and security that fundamentalism (whether religious, economic, or political) offers.

We believe that if we surround ourselves with like-minded individuals who share our fears and gravitate toward our idea of a safe haven we can shout down those who disagree with us and create a utopia for ourselves where we don’t have to concern ourselves with the needs, desires, hopes and fears of anyone else.

During the Christmas season just passed, you may have heard these words from the Prophet Isaiah of the Hebrew Bible:

He shall judge between the nations,

    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

    and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

    neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah 2:4

These words, familiar to many, are set in the context of a vision of a new and transformed world in which all of the nations of the world come together in search of a new way of being together in the world.

In this prophetic vision, the change comes when the people are confronted with the judgment of God on the status quo of their world.  I think it may be useful if we think of the judgment of God not as coming in some future time as envisioned in these writings with the coming of a Messiah; or in the end times as some believe.  I think it will be useful if we see the status quo of our own time as the judgment of our time and our ways.

Since the horrors of the school shootings at Columbine High School, we have seen shootings at Virginia Tech; a political rally in Arizona; a theater in Aurora; and Sandy Hook Elementary School; not to mention, in the same time frame, wars that have produced not peace but a perpetual state of chaos and violence.  Surely these are judgments on a society that lives in fear and turns to armaments (read gun rights) and violence (read war and militarism) and coercion (read legislation) to allay our fears.

The answer lies, I believe, not in praying for the end times to come when a God will intervene from on high; nor waiting for a Messiah in the form of a political leader who will lead us into a new ways of being; nor in turning to our legislators to enact new laws and restrictions on how we may choose to live our lives.

I am quick note that in the Biblical vision from Isaiah it is not through legislation that the people turn away for their love of armaments and violence.  It is not through confiscation of their swords that the people seek a peaceful and safer world.  It is the people, themselves, empowered by a new vision of a transformed world who beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

The answer lies, I conclude, in a change of heart; a decision on the part of each of us, the fearful and the proud, to cease our worship of power and of arms.  It is a change of heart that comes when we, the people, are confronted with a new vision of righteousness, and justice, and mercy; when we cease to find comfort and safety in our arguments and our isolation and turn instead to find safety in a new vision of community and dialog with each other.  It comes from acknowledging that we are all in this world together and that security for each of us is found in an ongoing pursuit of the common good for all of us.

Spiritual but not Religious

Starting this thread, I am reminded of Home Room Class my sophomore year of High School.  Stacy Albert Thomas sat behind me.  On the first day of class that Fall, the teacher handed out a survey.  As the rest of the class worked away in silence, I could hear Stacy reading aloud his responses as he filled in his questionnaire.  When he got to hobbies, he said, as only an overly bright and under-challenged teenager might, “Experimental Theology.”

Experimental Theology!  Can you even say that in Waco Texas, Jerusalem on the Brazos?  I waited for the rumbling thunder and lightning bolts.  The sky remained clear, hot, and silent.

In a small way Stacy, you helped set me on the path of working out my understanding of theology for myself.  Thanks.  If you are out there somewhere in cyberspace, look me up.  It is time we had a reunion.

I recently learned that “spiritual but not religious”, or in cyber-speak “SBNR” is a search term that will land you on a sites devoted to this subject.

The first blog that I visited via this search term remains under construction, so I could not find an answer to the question that always comes to mind when I hear the statement “I’m, spiritual, not religious”, namely what are your objections to religion?

I am sure there are as many answers as there are people who utter those words.  From my own observations, let me start the discussion with what I think underlies this statement.

I’m spiritual not religious:

  • †  I don’t go to church anymore, but I am still a good person
  • †  the religious tradition that I once practiced no longer meets my needs
  • †  I think much of what goes on in church is irrelevant
  • †  I find other pursuits more meaningful
  • †  I was wounded as a child by what I experienced in church, so I won’t go anymore
  • †  I don’t like being told what to think and believe
  • †  I am just too busy and don’t have time for church
  • †  I don’t like the people I meet in church

I invite you to add others to this list while I work on my next post.

Things We Can Do About Gun Violence

In a Facebook post following the Newtown Connecticut school shootings, I made the statement that there must be a thousand things we as a society and as a nation could do to address gun violence and mass shootings.  Appropriately, a friend replied “post ‘em if you got ‘em”.

So, I’ve decided to ignore the hyperbole of my original statement and begin posting every thought that comes to me on the subject.  I also invite readers of this blog to add to the list.  It is my hope and expectation that in the course of listing responses to mass shootings in particular and the gun culture that underlies the 21st Century American Zeitgeist we can find reasonable changes that can and will contribute to safer and more peaceful communities.

Here are some thoughts to get the dialog started:

1.  Do nothing.  Nothing needs to change.  Our right to keep and bear arms is more important than the lives that are lost to gun violence each year.  After all, guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  If killers don’t have guns, they will find other ways to continue the killing.

2.  Wait a thousand years and see if we evolve into a civilized society.  That’s about how long it has taken European countries evolve into societies that have lower levels of gun ownership and significantly lower murder rates.

3.  Trust the marketplace.  When people decide they no longer need assault weapons, they will stop buying them.  When people stop buying them, the manufacturers will stop making them and the importers will stop importing and selling them.

4.  We could look at other nations where the death rate from gun violence is lower than ours and find out what they do differently.  See what strategies and policies work in those countries then adapt those strategies and policies here.

5.  We could stop waiting for “someone” to do something about gun violence and think about things we can each do as individuals.  Here are some suggestions.

6.  We could attend neighborhood association and homeowner association meetings where we live and discuss the issues that surround gun violence and mass shootings. Then, take our concerns to our city councils and county governments.

7.  We could petition of our state legislatures to make changes to our state’s gun laws.

8.  We could join with individuals such as Gabrielle Giffords and contribute to lobbying efforts that provide alternative perspectives to those proffered by the NRA.

9.  We could form and support a think tank to develop model legislation and lobby for its enactment in our local and state governments.

10.  We could demand access to the facts about gun violence by asking Congress to release the data that various agencies collect on gun violence and have those data studied by universities and agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health.

11.  We could gather facts for ourselves.

12.  Attend a local gun show.  Find out what weapons are for sale.  Find out how easy it is to purchase a gun.  Find out how easy it is to obtain a high-volume magazine.  Find out how easy it is to obtain instructions on how to convert a semi-automatic weapon into a fully-automatic weapon.  Journal or blog about your experience.

13.  Purchase a handgun at the gun show.  Go to a shooting range and learn how to use it. Journal or blog about your experience.

14.  Obtain a concealed carry permit for your newly purchased handgun. Journal or blog about your experience.

15.  Carry your newly acquired and licensed handgun for a month. Journal or blog about your experience.

16.  Take your newly acquired and licensed handgun to a local law enforcement agency or gun buy-back program and turn it in. Journal or blog about your experience.

17.  After a month without your licensed handgun, journal or blog about your experience.

18.  Reflect on the above experiences then advocate for the gun laws you would like to see in effect in your community.

19.  Get to know your state representative and your member of congress.  Meet with them and discuss your newly informed ideas on gun control.

20.  If this experience has been informative for you, invite/challenge others in your community to undertake this same course of action.

In future posts, I will continue this discussion and expand it to a broader discussion of the factors that contribute to a less violent society.  In the meantime, please join the discussion.  I welcome comments that challenge as well as support the ideas presented here.

Final Thoughts on Mass Killings

Part One: How we have been set up for all this violence.

A recent radio interview with Senior Analyst for the Violence Policy Center Tom Diaz provided me a missing piece for my understanding of how to look at gun violence in America.  What follows is my reflection on the role of the arms industry and its unwitting ally the entertainment industry in creating an America in which these mass killings occur and why these occurrences are inevitable.

Gun manufacturers in America are just another example of a profit-driven enterprise that, having saturated its traditional market, seeks to exploit new market opportunities.  What separates gun manufacturers from other enterprises that trade in potentially lethal products like the pharmaceutical industry, the auto industry, and the tobacco industry is that they have been given the gift of a tangential mention in the Bill of Rights.

While legal scholars and commentators currently state that the Supreme Court has settled the question of whether the Second Amendment protects individual gun ownership; I find myself holding to the interpretation of the Second Amendment that says that its intent was to protect the right of citizens to participate in local militias.  This later interpretation would disestablish the arms manufacturers’ protected status and subject them to the same regulatory apparatus that has served the American People so well by protecting us from unsafe products and practices by all other American corporations and industries.

So, the arms manufacturers, through their handmaiden the NRA, have sold us the notion that any regulation whatsoever of their lethal industry is an assault on our personal liberty and a threat of oppression by a menacing “government” that is dead set on depriving us of all our constitutionally protected rights.  If we submit to any limitation on the right to keep and bear arms, what will be next?

They have convinced the American public that we can protect ourselves from an increasingly dangerous and menacing world by the ownership, possession, and concealed carrying of lethal handguns and assault rifles.

They have fought – to their profit and to the demise of 30,000 Americans each year – reasonable data gathering, study, and regulation of handguns, hunting weapons, and anti-personnel assault rifles.  Thus, allowing them to expand their market base to ordinary citizens who have no reasonable need for their products and to continue to increase their corporate profits in the face of declining sales to sport hunters, law enforcement, and the military.

Part Two:  Are we really that gullible?

Do violent television programs and video games incite violent action or do they provide a means of vicariously expressing our violent nature and result in a more peaceful society?  I’ve heard arguments expressing both perspectives.  While this is an interesting question for further study, I think there are some inferences that we can draw on the impact of our fascination with violent entertainment.

First, let me state unequivocally, I am a willing and active consumer of the products of our violent entertainment industry.  My television viewing has included such titles as Perry Mason, The Rockford Files, Law and Order, Law and Order, Criminal Intent, The Sopranos, 24, Homeland, and recently, Breaking Bad and The Wire.  Although some of these programs do not directly depict violent acts as graphically as the series 24, they all depend to one degree or another, on the plot device of a violent crime, usually a murder.

As those of you who know me can attest, I have yet to be accused of a violent crime as a result of my television viewing.  Further, I would like to think I would be considered low risk for the kinds of criminal behavior depicted in these television dramas.  I have of late however, given thought to limiting my consumption of dramatized violence to see what impact such a change might have on my serenity and sense of the world because I am given to speculate that dramatized violence is a major factor in the widespread belief that we live in a dangerous and menacing world.

Over recent years and decades the studies I have encountered continue to show that Americans’ fear of being a victim of violent crime is far greater than our actual risk of crime and violence.  Consequently, I think we have been set up by our entertainment to be receptive to the fear mongering that the arms industry relies on from the NRA to promote the sales of their anti-personnel weaponry.

The other and perhaps more insidious effect of dramatized violence is the creation of the violent warrior-hero who commits acts of violence to avenge the deeds of the villain and restore order.  There are two consequences of the glorification of these violent warrior-heroes.

First, they sanction and valorize the use of violence.  Jack Bauer, violent warrior-hero of the series 24 slaughtered hundreds of minions of the masterminds of the conspiracies foiled.  He effectively used harsh interrogation techniques and even resorted to murder to gain the information he needed to succeed in foiling his fictional villains.  All this at a time when our national conscience was struggling with the actual use of harsh interrogation against suspected conspirators.  Did Jack Bauer’s success in these fictional episodes contribute to our willingness to accept the use of torture and interrogation techniques that have repeatedly, over the centuries, been shown totally ineffective in evoking useful intelligence; even though they are effective in convincing witches and heretics to confess their sins? (Not, I hasten to add, their actual sins, but the sins their inquisitors accused them of.)

Further, how many times did we see Jack Bauer draw his handgun, fire a few rounds, and kill his intended target?  Let me remind you that Jack Bauer is a fictional character, enacting a script that reads  “Jack fires.  Terrorists #3 and #4 fall dead.”  There are NO real-life Jack Bauers.  No human being alive could make the kill shots depicted in these televised fictions.  Yet I think every concealed-carry permit bearing, gun toting, NRA member, gun owner believes he could prevent the next mass shooting if only HE were there.

It is time for us as individuals and as a nation to grow up; put away our childish fantasies and super heroes; and give up violence as a solution to anything.  It is time to band together and repudiate the lie that “the only solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Aren’t we Americans smarter than that?  Aren’t we Americans more creative than that?  Aren’t we Americans deserving of better solutions to the challenges that face us?  I hope so.

Reflections on Sandy Hook: Part 2

Members of the religious right are being heard to make statements such as “something has gone wrong in America and that we have turned our back on God…I think we have turned our back on the scripture and on God almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on.”

Were I to use those words, I would be saying something quite different from what usually follows from the right.  They will follow such words with a condemnation of whatever social issue they feel represents the great evil of our time.  Where I agree with the statement is that I think the events of Sandy Hook, Aurora, Columbine and the numerous other mass shootings of recent years are the inevitable result of the attitudes and values that we as individuals, and we as communities, and we as a nation have embraced.   Or, if not embraced, we have not challenged or offered alternative perspectives in the public discourse when these unspeakable events occur.

For starters, I think it is counterproductive to speak of the shooters in these episodes as “monsters” though their deeds are indeed monstrous.  I think it is a mistake to label them “evil” though their actions certainly conform to every definition of “evil” that I know.  I think it is more important to see these perpetrators as persons not much different from ourselves.  Then we can ask more productive questions such as “what went wrong for them?” Or “what influences have guided my choices that I did not fall into the depths of despair that spawned their actions?”

I am given to ask, “Have our spiritual leaders and spiritual institutions failed us?”  For, surely there are significant spiritual dimensions to these tragedies.  Have our spiritual institutions become so caught up in institutional survival that we have neglected the care, nurture, and training of our souls?  Have we sought power, influence, and prosperity at the expense of our prophetic vision?  Further, have we as parishioners and congregants been unwilling to be challenged and insisted only on a message of comfort and reassurance?

More questions than answers.  Who will join me in the conversation?